The bassoon solo in Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso is an opportunity to really sing. But it’s worth a deeper look – some inconsistencies between the score, the orchestral parts and the original piano version can suggest a fresh approach to interpretation. Nicolas Richard digs deep into one of our key orchestral excerpts.
Perhaps the most important lesson I learned during my orchestral excerpt studies was that every musical decision should be informed by a deep study of the score. Passages of music that we play on the bassoon are never written in a vacuum – knowledge of the full orchestral context will always point us closer to a composer’s intentions. Countless were the times when I arrived at a lesson having practiced an orchestral excerpt until the cows come home, only to be stumped when my teacher asked, “do you know what the cellos and basses are playing under you?” Back to the drawing board I went…
One particularly interesting case in score study is the expressive solo for the bassoon in Maurice Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso. This short and exciting piece is an orchestration Ravel made of a movement from his masterful piano work, Miroirs. Roughly translated to ‘Morning Song of the Jester’, this movement frames a slow and evocative solo – the jesters’s lament – around a lively and rhythmic ‘party’, all steeped in Spanish flavour. The most interesting feature is that there is no accompaniment at all while the bassoon is playing its solo. The strings, harps, and percussion only make short punctuations between each phrase of the passage, as if the jester is strumming softly on a guitar.
Given the bare quality of the jester’s lament, and the fact that it was originally conceived as a solo piano work, it makes sense for the bassoonist to study the original Miroirs score. Ravel was himself a virtuoso pianist so some of his music has deep roots in the character of the piano itself. A careful comparison of the notation differences between the solo piano and orchestral versions can help the bassoonist build a deeper interpretation.
The solo part looks like this….
Ravel’s original conception of Alborada as a piano solo…
The point of this comparison is to experience how different your interpretation of the solo will feel and sound at the keyboard. If you can play Alborada on the bassoon you will certainly be able to play the very simple lament on the piano. Just do it!!
A particularly effective strategy to open up our ears to interpretive possibilities in Alborada is to practice the solo on the piano. Personally, I am possibly the worst piano player to have been awarded a music degree, but even I am able to plunk out the notes on a piano! Experiencing this passage at the piano should at the very least ‘flavour’ your interpretation of the solo. Thinking about a composer’s own performing perspective can lead us to hear familiar phrases in a new light. I adore listening to a great pianist play this piece and dream about bringing that kind of artistry to my own playing.
For many wind players the percussive nature of the piano sometimes seems a weakness in a lyrical passage. Even on a concert grand piano, once a note is struck it must die away. Isn’t the bassoon closer to the human voice? Perhaps, but part of the magic in great pianism is to capitalize on this lack of sustaining tone, creating the illusion of linearity despite the constant waning flexibility of each note. A particular strength of the piano that is most instructive to the bassoonist studying Alborada lies in its ability to emulate the decay of syncopation without any effort. It’s unavoidable, but an attribute, and here we make the decay coincide with the rhythmic energy in the tail end of a syncopation. Look at the bassoon entries in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th iterations begin with a syncopation. Perhaps we could try to emulate that?
Ultimately, it’s my personal view that we bassoonists should approach the solo in a manner that leans into the idiosyncratic strengths of our instrument. We like to think that the ‘Master of Orchestration’ knew what he was doing by giving this beautiful piano passage to the bassoon! Still, there is much to learn by sitting at a keyboard and trying to emulate a great pianist.
Here is a fine example – a performance by the legendary Dinu Lipatti. (Yes, it’s surprisingly quick!)
Below you will find a summary of the differences, bar-by-bar, between the passage in the piano score “PS” and the orchestral score “OS”. Here, “M. N” denotes the Nth bar starting from the first bar of the solo at the plus lent marking (i.e. M. 1 is the first bar of the solo, and so forth). You will find the bassoon excerpt with differences from the piano score marked in highlighter. The passage from the bassoon part does not deviate from what is found in the orchestral score.
My hope is that pointing out the differences between source materials and executing them yourself – at the piano!! – will engender some soul searching questions!
-Should we attempt to match the natural decay of the piano when we play long notes in this passage?
-To what extent does the original conception of the solo on the piano influence the new version that Ravel created by orchestrating the piece?
-Why would Ravel choose to alter the grace notes of the piano version to strict rhythms in the orchestration? How does that influence our interpretation?
-Why might it be relevant that Ravel marked certain grace notes to start with the left hand rather than keeping all notes in the right hand?
-Why are some crescendos/diminuendos placed on different or missing altogether between the two versions?
Measure 1 –
Piano Score: « expressif » « en récit »
Orchestral Score: « expressif » « quasi recitativo »
Measure 2 –
PS: No crescendo printed, no accent on grace note
OS: crescendo starting on 2nd eighth note of b.2, accent on grace note
Measure 3 –
Measure 4 –
No differences, but interesting marking of playing first note of grace notes with the LH in PS
Measure 5 –
PS: Nothing in this bar, but previous bar’s last beat has sustain slur under it. This is made more explicit in OS and the bassoon part.
OS: B ties
Measure 9 –
PS: No crescendo, marking of “enlever la sourdine”
OS: crescendo starting on B to next bar
Measure 10 –
No difference, again indication of first note of grace notes with LH in PS
Measure 11 –
PS: Very different from OS! Second half of second beat: Eighth note and grace note (without accent)
OS: Second half of second beat: two sixteenths notes, the second having an accent
Measure 12 –
PS: See M. 5
OS: See M. 5
Measure 15 –
PS: No crescendo
OS: Crescendo starting on the G
Measure 16 –
PS: No diminuendo, accent+LH marking on grace note
OS: Diminuendo starting on A
Measure 17 – PS: No diminuendo
OS: Diminuendo through the entire bar
Measure 18 –
PS: LH grace note marking (no accent). Diminuendo starts on this bar
OS: Continuation of long diminuendo. Note the lack of accent on the grace notes
Measure 19 –
PS: See M. 5
Measure 21 –
PS: Crescendo begins on F#
OS: Crescendo begins on E
Measure 22 –
PS: Very different from OS. First half of b.1 is one eighth note followed by a grace note without an accent. The 2nd eighth note of b.1 has an accent. No accent on the E in b.2
OS: First half of first beat is two 16ths, the second having an accent. The E in b.2 has an accent.
Measure 23 –
PS: No tenuto marks, diminuendo starts on 2nd triplet of b.2
OS: Two eighth notes of b.1 have tenuto marks. No diminuendo
Measure 24 –
PS: Diminuendo marking throughout, no “pressez” marking
OS: “poco dim” and “pressez” marked
Measure 25 –
PS: No “rall” marking. No crescendo.
OS: “rall” marked. Crescendo on last three eighth notes.
Measure 26 –
PS: Diminuendo starts after grace notes. Slur begins on the bar, not slurred from previous bar. No slur indicating sustain of C# like in analogous passages.
OS: No diminuendo. Slur covers M. 25-27.
Measure 27 –
PS: Not a part of the passage
OS: Eighth note tied over. See M. 5
Happy head scratching!
Nicolas Richard is a member of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra and a graduate of the University of Ottawa and Rice University. He is a member of the board of the Council of Canadian Bassoonists
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